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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26640


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:32 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Treasurer and it goes to being economically responsible. Can the Australian public trust the Liberal Party not to block supply in the Senate if it finds itself in opposition after the election? Does the Liberal government still support the Senate being able to block supply? Given that this view is also shared by the Greens—and it is about the only thing the Liberals and the Greens agree on—and there is clearly a prospect of the Liberals and the Greens having a Senate majority after the next election, how can the Australian public trust the Liberals not to block supply?


The PRESIDENT —Senator Bartlett, I am trying to think how this question has any relevance to ministerial responsibility. It is rather hypothetical.


Senator BARTLETT —Firstly, it clearly goes to whether the Liberal government and its representative the Treasurer support the Senate retaining the power to block supply. Given the importance of economic responsibility, I would be surprised if the government would try to dodge such a basic question of economic responsibility by hiding behind a standing order.


The PRESIDENT —Minister, I will allow the question. I would ask you to respond to those matters that you believe come within your responsibility.


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —This government is not contemplating any such possibility because this government will be working very hard to ensure that it is returned to the government benches. This government has an absolutely outstanding record of performance over the last 8½ years, which it is confident on polling day the Australian people will acknowledge by returning it so it can continue to govern this country in the fashion in which it has over the last 8½ years. The record of performance in relation to managing the economy has been absolutely outstanding. We have record low unemployment, record low inflation, record low interest rates, very strong productivity growth and living standards that are higher than they have ever been in the history of this country. We have had real wages growth of 14 per cent under this government.

It is an incredible fact that the Labor Party was in office for 13 years and over the whole course of that 13 years real wages for ordinary Australians rose by only two per cent. That is an extraordinary statistic. The party of the workers, the party that says it is there to defend the workers and raise their living standards, in 13 years in office could manage a rise in real wages of only two per cent. In the 8½ years we have been in office we have raised real wages by 14 per cent. Australians are much better off as a result of our good economic policies and our strong economic performance and discipline in relation to the budget, which we believe the Australian people will acknowledge when it comes to polling day. They will also take into account the fact that, under every previous Labor government—that is, whenever the Labor Party have been in office; and they are the alternative government—interest rates have risen. That is because they cannot manage the budget process. There are always enormous inherent pressures on the Labor Party to raise interest rates because they cannot manage the budget.


Senator Robert Ray —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Could you give Senator Bartlett a chance to re-ask his question to match this answer?


The PRESIDENT —As you know, I cannot direct the minister as to how to answer the question, but I did invite him to answer those parts of the question he thought were relevant to his ministry. I do find that he may have strayed somewhat from that question, but it was a very hard question to answer. I would remind the minister of the terms of the question.


Senator MINCHIN —I was simply addressing the proposition that we might be in opposition. I am simply pointing out to the Senate why I am earnestly optimistic that we will not be in those circumstances: because of the extraordinary record of our government and our capacity to manage the budget to ensure that we paid off the debt that was left to us by the last Labor government—a reduction in debt by some $70 billion, remembering that the last Labor government racked up debts of $70 billion in just its last five budgets. It has taken us 8½ years of a very tough, disciplined approach to fiscal policy—with no help from those opposite. Every time we have come in here in an attempt to ensure fiscal discipline, they have opposed every measure we have adopted. Now they have the hide to stand up and say they are going to be the great disciples of fiscal discipline! They are the ones who are going to reduce government spending and government taxation as proportions of GDP—which I would have thought was utterly contrary to everything the Labor Party stands for—and produce bigger surpluses: the magic pudding of economic policy, which we think is utterly unattainable. In response to Senator Bartlett, we do not believe those circumstances are going to arise.


Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am surprised that the minister would have found that a difficult question to answer, but I will give him a simpler one. Given the minister's talk about fiscal discipline and responsible budgets, does the Treasurer's representative in this chamber still believe it is economically responsible for the Senate to be able to block supply?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —Again, that question is utterly hypothetical. I am actually surprised that you have allowed it to stand, Mr President. Nevertheless, we will endeavour to continue to demonstrate throughout this campaign—and hopefully when we are re-elected on 9 October—our earnest approach to fiscal discipline. There is no more important responsibility of a federal government than managing the national economy, something we think we have demonstrated our capacity to do and something which the Labor Party, whenever it is in office, demonstrates its complete and utter incapacity to perform. This new Labor leader never talks about economic policy, economic discipline or national economic management; he talks about some ladder of opportunity which I think goes way over the heads of all Australians. Senator Bartlett, again, all I can say is that I hope the circumstances you portray will never arise.